Tag Archives: stand-alone

Review: Midnight at the Electric

Jodi Lynn Anderson’s Peaches trilogy was one of the significant contemporary YA stories of my teen years. I hold it in such high esteem that I’m afraid of reading it again so many years later, in case my opinions would be different and my memories tarnished. But when I saw Anderson’s latest release, Midnight at the Electric, I thought this would be a great chance to revisit a beloved author through a new story, so I picked it up as soon as it came into my library.

midnightattheelectricAbout the book: Adri is preparing for life on Mars, to spend her remaining years building a new home for future generations. By 2065, Earth is a used-up place, but when Adri moves in with her distant cousin, Lily, for the duration of her final round of mission training, she discovers that there are still things to love about the planet she’s ready to leave behind. She and Lily find letters and a journal that connect them to a history they had never known themselves to be a part of. Through written words, they experience post-war England from the 1910s, and farm life in Oklahoma from the 1930s, when the Dust Bowl ravaged that part of the country. The three young women lead very different lives, but the stories line up to give Adri the answers she needs about her imminent trip to Mars.

“Time matters. Time matters. In nature’s calendar, midnight is the breath between day and night. It’s only at this hour that neither the sun’s rays nor the moon’s great pull can interfere with the electrical currents.”

There’s a lot going on in this book. We see a giant tortoise from the Galapagos Islands, various family dynamics, a carnival, the Dust Bowl, war heroes and pretenders, international travel, electricity, old age and dementia, the deterioration of a planet and construction of life on another, wealth and poverty, sickness, scars, the follies of youth, friendship, preparation for space travel, and so on. There are so many big themes, settings, and discussion points folded within this story, but at heart it’s a coming-of-age tale.

“Tomorrow feels like flipping a coin. Every moment I wonder if I’ve done the right thing, but tomorrow we begin to find out, and I almost can’t stand the thought of that.”

There’s also a lot going on in the formatting. Adri’s perspective is shown through a present, third-person narration that provides Adri’s actions and thoughts in “real time.” But through Adri, we also have two other perspectives in additional formats– Catherine’s sections are narrated first through a journal she kept, and then through letters she wrote after leaving her journal behind; Lenore’s sections are narrated entirely through her letters. Each section feels like the present (or recent past written from the present), though many years divide some of the characters. The formatting can be a lot to juggle, but it is all connected through Adri’s experiences.

” ‘The dust is terrible,’ he said after a long spell. ‘I know that. But… the rest of the world can be terrible too.’ “

If you can keep an eye on the raveling thread between all those areas of detail, the driving force of the story comes through the emotion in putting the pieces together. The reader learns in bite-sized snippets about life in dust storms, or after a war, or on a deteriorating planet. None of it is told exhaustively enough to become boring or overwhelming, but rather scratches the surface just enough to draw the reader’s attention, teach him/her something new, and move on to the next theme. The emotion between each is the glue that holds the story together.

“You become as strong as you have to be, don’t you think? When you’re trying to protect someone you love, you’ll do anything.”

There’s some romance (tastefully done, developing over time with each character unique and human and lovable), but there’s also heartbreak, friendship, adventure, betrayal… almost every emotion imaginable. (I realize adventure is not an emotion, but the combination of fear and excitement involved in adventure is.) In short, emotion is the thing Anderson does best here. In this coming-of-age story, with so much going on in the background, it can be hard to pinpoint a main plot. You could argue that Adri’s upcoming trip to Mars is the main plot arc, but that’s just one deadline among many. Even Adri seems to understand that the reader’s interest lies elsewhere– she’s regularly telling Lily that she needs to find the rest of the letters and records because she’s curious, because she likes to finish things, because she feels that there’s more to the story. It’s as though she’s urging the reader to keep turning pages, trying to convince the reader that he/she is curious too, reminding that there will be more to the story. A book with a strong plot doesn’t need those tricks. What it lacks in plot, though, Midnight at the Electric makes up for in emotion.

” ‘Don’t pin your hopes on something out there that doesn’t exist,’ he said, ‘or some ball of light or anything else. Pin them on me.’ “

“Grief isn’t like sadness at all. Sadness is only something that’s a part of you. Grief becomes you; it wraps you up and changes you and makes everything– every little thing– different than it was before.”

Highlighting emotion, however, introduces another problem: many of the main actions in the story happen just because the characters “feel” a certain way. They’ll have plans to do one thing, and then change their minds at the last minute because it doesn’t “feel” right. Most of the big decisions in Midnight at the Electric come down to impulse and feelings, which seems like an easy way out of rationalizing actions and fleshing out motivations.

” ‘Earth,’ Alexa finally said. ‘It’s not that great anyway.’ And they all smiled sadly. Because, of course, it was everything.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I liked the atmosphere(s) of this story more than anything else. The characters were sometimes predictable, and the tension was all over the place, but I did have a good time reading it. Although Midnight at the Electric didn’t impress me as much as I’d hoped, it also encouraged me to pick up another of Anderson’s books. I might have to check Peaches out again.

Further recommendations:

  1. In case you haven’t picked up on it already, Jodi Lynn Anderson’s YA Peaches is my favorite book by this author. If you like stories like Midnight at the Electric and are wondering where to go next, try Peaches, a story of three girls who become unlikely friends on a failing peach farm during a summer’s work that’ll affect all their lives.
  2. If it’s the crossing of characters through time that interests you (in YA), check out Ann Brashares’ My Name is Memory. This one’s about souls that are aware of their reincarnations, set on a plot that arcs over several lifetimes to culminate in one grand fight for love and life.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, from the Man Booker Prize long list. This novel is magical realism focused on a war-torn country whose inhabitants flee as a last resort, though they find that the difficulties of their country will follow them past its borders.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Stardust

After reading Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology earlier this year (and remembering how much I loved Coraline as a child), I decided I had to check out more of his books. I’ve had a few picked out, and decided to dive into Stardust this month, an adult fantasy stand-alone novel that’s short and sweet and full of adventure. It seemed like a good lead-in to The Hobbit, which I will be reading later this month.

stardustAbout the book: Dunstan Thorn sets a unique life on its adventurous course when he accepts his Heart’s Desire as rent payment from a strange and powerful man. Just shy of eighteen years later, Dunstan’s half-faerie son, Tristran, sets out past the village of Wall into the land of Faerie. He thinks he’s going to retrieve a fallen star that will win him the hand of the most beautiful girl in the village, but in Faerie nothing goes quite as planned. He meets several interesting characters along the way, some who want to help him and some that mean to thwart his plans. There’s also the matter of the fallen star possessing the form of a young lady, one who hates Tristran for his intent to trade her so he can be married. But the difficulty of Tristran’s own journey is the least of his problems– there are other creatures seeking the star, characters who will cut down anyone in their path. But even if Tristran succeeds, will the most beautiful girl in town consent to marry a shop-boy destined to be a sheep farmer in the little village of Wall?

” ‘I had thought,’ he confessed, ‘that a fallen star would probably look like a diamond or a rock. I certainly wasn’t expecting a lady.’ ‘So, having found a lady, could you not have come to her aid, or left her alone? Why drag her into your foolishness?’ ‘Love,’ he explained. She looked at him with eyes the blue of the sky. ‘I hope you choke on it,’ she said flatly.’ “

This is one of those episodic tales which, I think, require a lot more work from the author to keep the reader’s attention than traditional plot arcs. The reader must stay interested in many different “episodes” throughout the book, rather than one continuous arc, which means it’s all in the details, rather than the plot. This happens often with adventure stories, in my experience. In this case, there is the matter of the fallen star quest to tie Stardust all together, but Tristran’s search for the falling star is only one event among many. Gaiman juggles multiple characters, multiple plot lines, and many “episodes” in this one short volume.

For that reason, world-building forms the bulk of this short novel. There’s plenty going on, but it’s veiled in description of unusual place details and characters with uncommon mannerisms. The most interesting introduction for me was the addition to the story of seven brothers in the middle of killing one another in various deceitful ways, but all of the character introductions and new places are similarly packed with unusual background or sensory details to keep the reader engaged. The village of Wall and the world of Faerie seem almost tangible. Thus, the world-building is the strength of Gaiman’s Stardust.

The weakness, by contrast, is the romance. Tristran is willing to spend so much of his time and energy on this crazy quest for the girl he thinks he loves, but the reader sees from the beginning that his “love” for the beautiful Wall girl is a youthful infatuation no deeper than a preoccupation with the color of her eyes. In Faerie, he discovers that he wants something quite different for his life than manning a sheep farm with the beautiful village girl. But even when romance starts to play a role in the story for the second time, there are none of the casual little details to indicate affection; the love is necessary to the plot, and is described rather flatly, only going so far as to make its point. Books without romance can be great. Books with romance that isn’t the center of the story can also be done fantastically. But in a book like this, when romance plays such a key role in Tristran’s adventures, there need to be enough details for the love to feel as real as the world, and in that regard, Stardust fails.

But let’s talk about Tristran next.

“He was a gangling creature of potential, a barrel of dynamite waiting for someone or something to light his fuse; but no one did, so on weekends and in the evenings he helped his father on the farm, and during the day he worked for Mr. Brown, at Monday and Brown’s, as a clerk.”

Tristran is an elusive character, not especially wise or idiotic, not especially anything, really. He does take action of his own, but he is also shunted along in his journey by the actions of others. He takes things as they come, with little show of emotion. If not for his willingness to adventure, he would seem a particularly bland character. But he is willing to take chances and partake in quests and anything else required of him, and that makes him an excellent guide through a novel like this in which the reader never knows what to expect next. With such a fluid story line, the main character can’t be too rigid in his ways or the adventure won’t be possible. On his own, Tristran would be nothing more than a boring sheep farmer, but he is not on his own. He is part of Wall, and part of the Faerie realm. He is oath-bound to a fallen star. He’s capable and versatile, and ready to change the world.

Stardust feels a bit like a writer’s exercise, a foray into uncharted territory. It’s the sort of story I imagine would emerge from a writer’s hands when he/she sat down at the keyboard and decided to follow the letters wherever his/her fingers took the story, through worlds real and imagined. It could have been expanded four or five times into a thick fantasy novel if things hadn’t worked out so quickly and easily for Tristran on his quest. Personally, I would’ve followed those murderous brothers through several hundred more pages even if their story veered far beyond the point where it overlaps with Tristran’s. Instead, Stardust is a sample of fantasy– a snapshot, a tiny glimpse into the realm of the extraordinary. This one’s definitely an adult tale, so if you’re looking for an easy start into adult fantasy, Stardust would be a great way to get a feel for that genre without investing much time.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed the journey, but I was also glad to put it behind me at the end. I’ll still be reading more Neil Gaiman books, whether this year or next I don’t know, but I’m in awe of Gaiman’s range. The three books I’ve read under his name have been so vastly different that I have no idea what to expect from further books, but I’m definitely curious enough to find out.

Further recommendations:

  1. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders is an adult magical realism novel that feels similarly episodic, and follows a scientist boy and a magical girl from childhood to adulthood, through crises of varying magnitude.
  2. The Magician’s Boy, the first book in C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, is a more apt choice for readers young and old who want another easy entrance to the fantasy genre. If you’re looking for fantasy that’s fun but not strictly adult, try Narnia; I started reading these books when I was seven, and am still enjoying them now that I’m in my twenties with an English degree. Narnia is a land where anything can happen, and all seven books are quick and engaging reads.

Coming up Next: I’m currently reading Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, a classic murder mystery (from the legendary queen of murder mysteries). This one’s about a long train ride in which a passenger is killed… meaning anyone on the train could have done it, and anyone on the train could be the next victim.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Hate U Give

Angie Thomas’ debut novel The Hate U Give has been picking up steam before it even released to the public, and now, a couple months past its publication date, it still hasn’t slowed down. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this book is both timely and well-written–if you read (and even if you normally don’t) this is a book worth picking up.

thehateugiveAbout the book: Khalil is driving Starr home from a Garden Heights party when they are pulled over by a cop for a broken taillight. The cop thinks they’re acting suspiciously, and one unannounced move wins Khalil three shots to the back. This is the second time Starr has witnessed the death of a best friend. She’s caught in the middle between loyalties to her family and neighborhood and the reputation she’s built for herself at a predominantly white school. Speaking out for Khalil and fighting for justice is dangerous for her in both worlds, but as her home life and school life collide she has to decide what she’s willing to fight for, and which people in her life are really on her side.

” ‘These cases always interesting,’ King says. ‘The dig for information. Shit, they try to find out more ’bout the person who died than the person who shot them. Make it seem like a good thing they got killed.’ “

Right at the start, I want to talk about how hard it’s been to find a good direction for this review. Generally when I’m writing reviews I aim to stick to the story itself, and not go into tangents about the current state of the world. But this is a book that’s meant to raise awareness and start conversations, and that intent is what I want to talk about.

“People like us in situations like this become hashtags, but they rarely get justice. I think we all wait for that one time though, that one time when it ends right.”

There are a lot of things to love about The Hate U Give, and readers have been talking about all those good things for months. Like everyone else, I appreciated the writing style, the plot, and its attempt to raise awareness of continuing racism in America, because the book does all those things indisputably well. I do think it misses an important opportunity, though.

I don’t disagree with the argument that there is still racism in the US. It’s not something that I see firsthand every day, but I have no difficulty believing that it’s out there, not just in big ways like unfair deaths but in a thousand small words and gestures. I can get behind that argument. I can get behind the need to stop racism. What I can’t get behind is substituting one instance of racism with another one. There are generalizations about white people in this book. Just a small handful of instances, and nothing too cruel beyond the fact that they’re generalizations, but I was surprised to find them here at all. It’s odd to see commentary like that coming from Starr, who’s so aware of offenses going the other way and who’s interested in justice, not revenge. I felt that these moments were maybe meant to make white readers a little uncomfortable, to flip the tables and show them what the characters in this story are dealing with, and for that reason I didn’t completely mind that those instances were in the book even though generally I feel that’s the wrong approach. The real reason those little instances of being lumped in a category with people who ride garbage cans down stairs and kiss dogs on the mouth bugged me was because this book could have done more to make a positive change. It has everyone’s attention–but what is it doing with it?

That’s the missed opportunity. The Hate U Give does a great job of raising awareness of injustices. It shows a case where the white man’s word means more than the black girl’s, and does it in a way that convinces the reader that this is not unusual in modern US. But what can we learn from it? What is it telling readers they can do differently to help solve continuing problems of racism? If you’re a cop, maybe it tells you to learn the whole story before you shoot. But if you’re not a cop, what can you do? If you don’t have a black girlfriend to follow through riots, what can you do? There are good characters who set good examples in this book, but very little to suggest what readers can do to follow their footsteps. I didn’t expect this to be a stop-racism-instruction-manual. But I think this book really missed a great opportunity to encourage positive change when it stopped at raising awareness.

“At the end of the day, you don’t kill someone for opening a car door. If you do, you shouldn’t be a cop.”

But that’s not the reason I docked a star from my rating. I believe this book could’ve made even more of a statement, but the statement it does make is an effective one. It’s a great book, and I highly recommend it. But it’s one of those stories you have to read for the characters, because there’s not much to surprise readers in the plot. Once you know the premise, you know the most important event of the book, and anyone living in (or hearing about) modern US can make an educated guess about the end result of that main event. Everything else has to do with character, and while they’re great characters, they’re not surprising either.

“I can’t change where I come from or what I’ve been through, so why should I be ashamed of what makes me, me? That’s like being ashamed of myself.”

But let me end on a good note, because I loved everything else about this book. Starr’s family is fantastic. The writing style is easy to follow, inspiring, and keeps the reader hooked from page one, no matter what they’re feeling about the subject matter. These are the sort of characters that readers wish were their real friends. It’s that perfect blend of fiction and reality that I love–the sort that blurs the line between fact and imagination, and proves literature can do important things.

” ‘Brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared, Starr,’ she says. ‘It means you go on even though you’re scared. And you’re doing that.’ “

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I got exactly what I expected from this book. We need more of this in literature–fiction that shows what’s going on in real life; although I also hope that writers will be brave enough to offer more suggestions for change. There are important messages in this book, about voices being powerful weapons and the need to listen to the whole story, every time, and refrain from making assumptions. I would definitely read another book from this author, and you can bet I’ll be recommending this one in the future.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward, a memoir about a young woman in Mississippi whose family and friends have been dying one by one as a direct and indirect result of continuing racism. This is a powerful story of five lives lost in five years, with enough narrative to appeal to habitual fiction readers even though it’s grounded in fact.
  2. If you’re looking for more YA that raises awareness of real-life problems, Mindy McGinnis’ The Female of the Species and Robin Roe’s A List of Cages are great choices. McGinnis’ book highlights the very real effects of rape on an entire community, and Roe’s book focuses on misuse of the foster system and guardianship rights. Neither deal directly with racism, but are timely and important YA novels that I believe are also important for readers looking to learn about the modern world through fiction.

What’s next: I’m just starting Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray, a YA historical fiction novel about a Lithuanian girl trying to communicate with her father through her art while she’s at a Serbian work camp during WWII.

Have you read any recent releases? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: A List of Cages

Robin Roe’s A List of Cages is a 2017 contemporary YA release that’s been on my radar all year, but I haven’t actually seen it anywhere–bookstores, libraries, etc. It’s been oddly absent. Finally I requested it on interlibrary loan so I could read it in July, and here we are.

alistofcagesAbout the book: Julian and Adam were foster brothers in childhood, but then Julian’s uncle came to claim him. For five years, Julian has been living with his uncle, but now he’s starting high school–the same high school that Adam attends as a senior. Adam has a whole crew of friends already assembled, but after meeting Julian again at school he makes sure there’s always room in his life for Julian. At first the two are just happy to be reunited, but Julian’s life hasn’t been problem-free for a long time and this is no exception. His uncle objects to Julian spending time with Adam. Adam is not allowed in the house, Julian has to hide the time he spends with Adam both in and out of school. As Julian’s uncle becomes more aggressive in an attempt to control Julian’s life, Adam begins to notice that something is wrong with the situation, though Julian is making every effort to appease his uncle by denying that anything bad is happening. Adam may be able to rescue Julian from his uncle’s abuse, but if he can’t succeed, Julian’s situation will only get worse.

“I know what I think, but people don’t want you to say what you think. They want you to say what they think. And knowing what that is isn’t easy.”

I appreciate the messages of friendship and justice in this book, and I think that Julian’s character is adorable–he’s young for his age, but observant and objective in ways that prevent him from seeming ridiculously childish when he doesn’t understand something or behave as expected. These are the aspects that made me rate this book as I highly as I did, though I also had some problems with its execution.

Firstly, Adam’s character falls flat. He’s not unrealistic, necessarily, but predictable. He’s the kind of guy who would maybe be fun to know in real life, but in fiction he comes off as particularly fictional. After about two chapters in Adam’s perspective, nothing he was going to do had any power to surprise me. I grew increasingly bored in his chapters. His plot threads about the senior class dare game and crushing on  Emerald seem almost painfully cheerful-bland and unnecessary to the overall story. In light of what Julian is going through, it’s hard to be interested in Adam having his usual good time with his horde of friends and generally being loved by everyone. It’s nice to see a character who has struggled with ADHD living such a happy life, but I did not need nearly so much detail about that because it didn’t really have anything to do with the plot. It seems like Adam is only necessary in this book at all to be in the right place at the right time for Julian. I’m glad Adam exists in this story, for Julian’s sake, but I wish he stuck to the background. It doesn’t feel like his story to tell.

I also didn’t like that almost every adult in this story is so mean. Sometimes when you’re a kid, the grown-ups seem like the bad guys; sometimes the grown-ups actually are the bad guys. But I don’t think that every single teacher and nurse and casual bystander should be depicted as cruel toward children. I can only think of two adults in this novel who were nice to any of the teens in this book, and those two were the overly nice “I’m going to spend all of my time and energy looking after kids who need my help” type who didn’t step in when it was needed until one of the other kids brought the big problem to their attention. It feels unrealistic, and it’s a bad message to send teen readers that there are no adults willing to help them, and that all adults are blind to teenage strife. There are grown-ups who can and are willing to help.

“It’s strange how many ways there are to miss someone. You miss the things they did and who they were, but you also miss who you were to them. The way everything you said and did was beautiful or entertaining or important. How much you mattered.”

On the plus side, this is one of those books that brushes close to actual problems in the real world and raises awareness without becoming overly moralizing. It highlights problems like child abuse and how children with quiet and/or unusual personalities can be taken advantage of by ill-meaning adults, but it does those things without cramming “you should do this to help the cause” suggestions down the reader’s throat. It doesn’t make the reader feel like a bad person for being unaware that stories like this can happen. And that’s one of the things I love best about fiction–something totally made up can make a real difference without turning into a how-to pamphlet.

Warning: A List of Cages deals with some heavy topics. Be prepared to encounter some abuse, bullying, and grief in this story.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had a good time reading this book, despite its grim subject matter and the few complaints detailed above. It’s easily readable and insightful, and I’m definitely going to be recommending this one. I’ll be interested to see if Roe will have future works to check out. A List of Cages reignited my interest in hard-hitting, meaningful YA stories–which is great because today I’m starting Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give.

Further recommendations:

  1. Emma Donoghue’s Room is an adult book with a young child narrator that makes the story accessible for a wide range of readers (read: it’s an adult book that may interest YA readers). If you’re touched by Julian’s struggles and the possibility of real-life similar cases, then Room is a good choice for a next read. In this one, a woman and her young son are imprisoned in Room, a small, windowless, sound-proof shed where their captor has held them hostage for years. The book covers a plot for escape and justice.
  2. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell is a YA book about a teen girl with an abusive stepdad and a slough of other difficulties (poverty, bullying, many young siblings to take care of), trying to make her way through a new public school. This is another great story about friendship (and romance), and kids fighting horrible situations and unfit guardians.

Coming up next: I’m just finishing Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, which makes a great summer read. It’s about a 59 year-old man who’s angry at the world and everyone in it, with a past full of grand and painful stories and a future full of unexpected friends–and a mangy cat. It’s humorous and emotional, light enough to read at the beach but heavy enough to take seriously.

What type of book is your perfect summer read?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Big Little Lies

I’m a little late on the Big Little Lies train, but I couldn’t let the train pass altogether without hopping on. I’ve been meaning to read a Liane Moriarty book for months, and although this one wasn’t originally my first choice, I love a good book-to-TV adaptation and I had to check it out.

biglittleliesAbout the book: On the Pirriwee Pennisula, children come first. Maybe children always come first, but for this batch of kindergarten moms, mysterious bullying in their kids’ class divides the parents even more dramatically than the children. Although the child being hurt won’t confess the identity of her abuser, she does select a scapegoat who, along with his mother, takes the brunt of the blame. No one can be sure whether this little boy is bullying or not, so of course the parents get involved, instructing their children to stay away from him or to be especially nice to the poor wrongly-accused child, depending on their opinions in the matter. Things get even more out of control at a parent event where the truth about the bullying finally comes out–as do some other upsetting details of wrongs that have been committed at the parents’ level. There’s adultery, abuse, even murder–proving that the bullying isn’t confined to the kindergarten class. Jane, Madeline, and Celeste are the three friends at the middle of it all, but even they can’t stop the madness. Someone is going to get hurt. Maybe everyone. Isn’t it possible that the bickering at the adult level is teaching the children to behave the same way toward each other?

“Did anyone really know their child? Your child was a little stranger, constantly changing, disappearing and reintroducing himself to you. New personality traits could appear overnight.”

About the layout: the book opens on a scene at the school trivia night, a parent fundraiser gathering complete with costumes, alcohol, and…death. Our narrator for this scene is a woman who lives across from the school and hears the screams and sees the ambulance coming in. After that, the narration goes back to the beginning of the school year, focusing on the three main parents’ interactions with each other and their children. The timeline proceeds as a countdown, marking how much time is left before the fateful trivia night. Mixed into this chronology, though, the reader also sees dialogue boxes from interviews with the parents and the police detective that come after the trivia night. This way, we see multiple perspectives on the main events both from a present perspective and a future one, after it all blows up at the trivia night.

I don’t want to say this book is catty, because it’s more than that. There are minor characters who seem to be present solely for their cattiness, but it wasn’t the little dramas and confrontations that kept me invested in the story, it was the overarching tension of waiting to discover the child bully and his/her motivations. The thing about Big Little Lies is that it’s full of opinions–sometimes the character who presents them can indicate whether or not they’re meant to be taken seriously, but sometimes it’s up to the reader’s judgment. There are mildly infuriating comments, but there are also comments whose agreeableness surprised and delighted me–comments about how people should treat each other, how to cope with difficult news or events, how unfair the world is in some regards. Here’s one I found interesting:

“I mean, a fat, ugly man can still be funny and lovable and successful…but it’s like it’s the most shameful thing for a woman to be.”

Personally, I really liked the writing style. I found it wonderfully revelatory of different sides of human nature. Except for the catty characters, everyone is sympathizable. Even the “bad” guys, the parents that are set against the main protagonists, aren’t unreasonable. What would you do if your five year-old daughter was being secretly bullied for months? Maybe a lot. It’s great to see a story where every side has its merits. I must have been reading a really early edition of the book, though, because there were a lot of mistakes, typos and mixed up names and details. I mean, no one’s perfect. Sometimes mistakes are missed in published works. This one just seemed to have an unusually high number of them. Even that, though, didn’t turn me off of the writing. Moriarty makes some excellent choices with her adjectives. I would say the writing style was the high point for me here.

The downfall, though, was this:

“Ever since Madeline had first mentioned Saxon’s name on the night of the book club, there had been something niggling at Celeste, a memory from before the children were born…That memory slid into place now, fully intact. As though it had just been waiting for her to retrieve it.”

This is my least favorite thing to see happening in any book, but especially in mysteries and thrillers. It is such a cop out for the biggest clue of the story to have been in the character’s possession the whole time, to be conveniently picked up at the most shocking moment. You may have listened to me rant about this before. The thing is, with mysteries of any pace, the fun is trying to guess whodunit and whether it was the candlestick in the library or the knife in the kitchen, etc. It’s an injustice to the reader to make them guess for 400 pages and then say, “oh, I’ve been holding back the key detail so you never really had any chance at it anyway.” The best mysteries/thrillers are the ones with all the details woven in before the pieces are assembled, in such a way that the big reveal is both obvious and unexpected when it arrives. The memory that Celeste suddenly retrieves here? It could have been woven in earlier to better affect.  I would have given this book a whole extra star if it hadn’t been for the short excerpt above. But alas…

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. The fact that I liked the writing style and the story in general up to the point of the misplaced memory indicates to me that I should try another Moriarty book. What Alice Forgot is currently sitting on my shelf, but I’ve also heard good things about The Husband’s Secret. I don’t really know much about either one, but I’ll be eager to give one or both of them a try this summer now that I’ve had a taste of Moriarty’s writing. I’m not sure yet about when I’ll watch the Big Little Lies episodes. Now that I know the whole plot, I think I want to let it settle a bit before I watch.

Further recommendations:

  1. For a mystery/thriller with multiple layers (and the key details woven in perfectly without ruining the surprise ending), check out Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes. The protagonist of this story is also a young mother with a small son and drama in the divorce, but this one is about so much more than family and social ties. And, of course, the writing is also superb.
  2. Megan Miranda’s The Perfect Stranger is also a good choice for readers interested in a teacher tormented by trouble both at school and at home. Although this protagonist isn’t a parent, she must deal with the school drama on top of suspicious and slightly terrifying events occurring at her home that seem to revolve around murder. Things get so much more complicated when it looks like all the incidents are connected.
  3. You should also try Shari Lapena’s The Couple Next Door if you’re a Big Little Lies fan. This one’s a mystery about a missing baby–the parents go next door for a dinner, leaving the baby asleep in her crib, and return to find her gone. The four at the dinner each have their own secrets–and one of them knows what happened to the baby. Or at least, they thought they did…

What’s next: I’m reading Sarah J. Maas’s YA/NA A Court of Wings and Ruin, finally. This is the third book in the Court of Thorns and Roses series, and I’ve been dying to find out what will happen after the cliffhanger of book two. But book two was a bit of a guilty pleasure, and I didn’t like book one as much, so I’m trying to keep my expectations at an appropriate level while also admitting that I probably will read all 700 pages of ACOWAR in just a couple of days.

Do you like to stay on top of popular book trends, or just read what you feel like, when you feel like it? Do you read popular books after the popularity has waned?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant